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December 9 - 16, 1999

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Heading for the Met

John Harbison's Great Gatsby

by Lloyd Schwartz

Few musicians have played as central a role in Boston's musical life as John Harbison -- composer, conductor, teacher, spokesperson for taking the arts seriously. We even take, here, a kind of proprietary interest in the news he makes beyond Route 128: his numerous awards (a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur "genius" Grant), his prestigious appointments (composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony, chair of the MIT music department), and his juicy commissions -- the grandest and most visible of which is just about to come to fruition: the end-of-the-millennium world premiere of his new opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, his version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which on December 20 opens an eight-performance run (through January 15; the live radio broadcast will be January 1 on WHRB, 95.3 FM). It's the Met's first new opera since Philip Glass's Christopher Columbus opus, The Voyage, in 1992, and its first world premiere by a Boston-area composer since the opening of Cleopatra's Night by Somerville's Henry Hadley, nearly 80 years ago.

There's something especially thrilling in the coincidence (or collision) of two major artists. Fitzgerald's novel of the jazz age -- which had a kind of cult following among writers until it was, as Harbison says, "rescued from the literary junkheap," thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of Edmund Wilson in the 1950s -- is now generally regarded one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, by some people the greatest. It tells one of the archetypal American stories: the hero of obscure origins who makes a shady fortune and gives his life (at the end of the book quite literally) to his pursuit of an ideal that finally can't help but betray him.

As a guest lecturer at a Harvard course on the history of 20th-century opera, Harbison told the story of how conductor David Zinman interrupted a rehearsal of Harbison's Third Symphony. "Yearning, yearning, yearning!", Zinman exclaimed. "What are you yearning for?" Harbison admitted to the students that it was that tone of longing and aspiration, of yearning, that first drew him to the idea of turning Gatsby into an opera.

When he started reading Gatsby in high school, Harbison says, he "read it for the plot, for the suspenseful quality of certain scenes." He calls his opera his "version of the musical opportunities in the book: arietta, quartet, choruses, the series of musical choices based on the suggestion of music in the book." He had to persuade the Met to let him write his own libretto, and what he came up with "certainly doesn't signify everything that I relish in the book. In no sense is this an effort to be responsible for every passage. Some things got in that in the hierarchy of Fitzgerald's most important scenes were not important, to leave space for what's more rewarding musically." And since he was his own librettist, he "never got any backtalk -- I cut some of the best lines without any objection."

One example, he offers, is Gatsby's elaborate plotting to arrange a meeting with Daisy Buchanan, whom he's been pining over since their romance was broken off five years before. Harbison does it in just a few lines. He admires the "marvelous pacing" of Fitzgerald's description of garage mechanic George Wilson trying to figure out what to do after his wife, Myrtle (the earthy mistress of Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan), has been killed. In the opera, Wilson's response is immediate and precipitous. Fitzgerald uses Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway as narrator. The entire book is really a flashback. Harbison drops this idea. He gives Gatsby and Daisy things to sing that are described only in retrospect in the book. He calls this "data."

One of the things Harbison loves about the book is its ambiguity. "Someone with a strong sense of social implications can read the novel as a stern indictment of the upper class, while someone else might see it as a wonderful, gaudy depiction of the jazz age. But Fitzgerald is always on both sides of an issue. He satirizes the fast lifestyle, but he wants to be part of it, too. This opera is my attempt to retain that poise between seeing the dark side of all the flashiness and glamor and courting it, too, romancing it. (The costume designer -- I hope -- takes the latter approach.)" He also wants to maintain the mystery of Gatsby's character. His Gatsby tells Tom Buchanan, "I came from wealthy people in the Middle West." "Where in the Middle West?" Tom demands. "San Francisco," Gatsby replies. I ask Harbison how he wants us to take Gatsby's answer. Is this sarcasm or ignorance? He answers, "I love the book for not clearing up those things."

Harbison grew up around Princeton (from which Fitzgerald dropped out after two years) "in the pre-coed, pre-social justice era." His father was a history professor and an amateur songwriter. As a teenager, John was in a Dixieland jazz band that played the Princeton "clubs." He observed the cruelty of the class system first hand. Fitzgerald, he says, was a hero worshipper who "reflected the inability to choose between the glamorous upward drive and the realization that it was unsupported and unsupportable."

Harbison has always been partial to vocal music. His 1987 Pulitzer Prize was for a cantata, The Flight into Egypt (commissioned by the Cantata Singers, the Boston choral group he directed from 1969 to 1973). His two previous operas were both based on literary classics: Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1972) and Yeats's one-act mystery play A Full Moon in March (1978). Two of my favorite pieces of his are the scintillating Mottetti di Montale, an hour-long setting of the Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale's most personal and in some ways most cryptic poems (he gave the series its musical title: "Motets"), and the Mirabai Songs, six dazzling serio-comic settings, in Robert Bly's translation, of poems by the 16th-century Indian woman mystic. Harbison also has a background in jazz and popular music. He once wrote an entire album of pop songs for Mary Travers (it never got recorded, but classical singers like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Nancy Armstrong have sung some of them with great success in their recitals).

One of the most fascinating issues in Harbison's Gatsby is its relation to popular music. The novel is set in a world where pop is an integral part of its character. The opera includes five original songs in 1920s period style with lyrics by Murray Horwitz (the originator of Broadway's Ain't Misbehavin', a former clown, and now vice-president of cultural programming at NPR). In the novel, Harbison reminds me, Fitzgerald actually mentions specific songs: "Ain't We Got Fun," "The Sheik of Araby." But Harbison needed to write original songs so they could interact directly with the harmonic and motivic structure of the more "operatic" music that surrounds them. These songs are sung to an on-stage band at Gatsby's parties or on the radio, and they're already familiar to the characters and party guests.

Even more important, the song lyrics mirror the situation of the principal characters. At Gatsby's first party, before his reunion with Daisy, the band singer croons "I'm Dreaming of You." Later, after Gatsby's affair with Daisy resumes, the song is "And if they ask you,/Say I'm doin' fine." Horwitz has added lyrics to eight instrumental passages from the opera, and these will soon be published with a reproduction of Francis Cugat's "Blue Eyes" on the cover -- the original Great Gatsby dust jacket (Fitzgerald said that he saw that cover before he'd actually completed Gatsby and that it influenced his writing). Harbison worries about whether his pop tunes will overshadow the opera's more "serious" music. It's an opera that might produce more hit songs than famous arias.

I mention to Harbison that the incorporation of a pop-music idiom reminded me of the quartet of vocalists who interrupt Leonard Bernstein's one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti with a commentary that's something like a cross between a Greek chorus and a radio commercial, and also of the second act of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, in which the lives of the characters are transformed into elaborate musical comedy "numbers." Harbison talks about Mozart's quoting popular tunes (including one of his own) in Don Giovanni. Or the Nurse's folk lullaby in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. (His favorite American operas are Porgy and Bess and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.) In this country, there's a "domination by popular music that almost no other nation has ever known." Ives, Copland, Virgil Thomson, Gershwin's concert pieces -- they're all saturated with some kind of popular music or another, and that saturation spread to the European composers. But the mid-century American symphonists, like his teacher Roger Sessions, responded to the onslaught of pop music with an insistence that composers go against that tide. With phonographs, radios, and movies (none of which Mozart and Wagner needed to worry about), that resistance was a losing battle.

Harbison has been thinking about a Gatsby opera for nearly a decade and a half now. He mentioned it to Mark Lamos, Gatsby's stage director, who also directed Harbison's first opera, Winter's Tale, in San Francisco. In 1985, he composed a concert piece called Remembering Gatsby that became the basis for the opera's overture, which foreshadows the action by intermingling opera with foxtrot. The first chord reminded one student in the 20th-century-opera class of the famous opening chord of Wagner's Tristan. "Unfortunately," Harbison replied, "almost none of my many allusions are conscious."

There was at first some question about whether Fitzgerald's publisher would release the performing rights. Harbison acquired them when it seemed that the copyright was about to run out. Then the copyright laws changed. But Harbison says the publisher, Charles Scribner, has been extremely supportive.

As has the Met. The credits for Gatsby include an impressive list of top-ranking singers: tenor Jerry Hadley as Gatsby, soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy, Wagnerian heldentenor Mark Baker as Tom, baritone Dwayne Croft as Nick, and -- making her Met debut -- long-time Harbison champion and friend Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, "a singing actress of earthy presence," as Myrtle ("Viewers have a treat waiting"). Met maestro James Levine is conducting; New York City Ballet star Robert La Fosse is the choreographer. Sketches of Michael Yeargan's sets and Jane Greenwood's costumes look spectacular, colorful, and evocative. Harbison singles out with particular gratitude the Met's new artistic assistant manager, Sarah Billinghurst, who came from the San Francisco Opera, where her job was specifically to shepherd new operas and their composers through the production ordeal, and who had been an invaluable help to him on his first two operas.

"This opera," Harbison says, "for better or worse, has not been workshopped." The only change in his score the Met asked him for was an additional 19 pages of very fast music in the interlude between the scenes at the Buchanans' house and the Wilsons' gas station, because the original music was too short for the necessary set change. "But I knew it was too short anyway," he admits.

Right now, this new opera of one of America's greatest literary masterpieces by one of our most prized composers at the world's leading opera house is probably the major international arts story. As we're talking at the Harbisons' Cambridge house, the phone is ringing off the hook. "Der Welt is on the line from Berlin," Harbison's wife, the violinist Rose Mary Harbison, announces. No one is a bit surprised.

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